Why Do Evangelicals Oppose Covid Vaccines?

Jarvis DeBerry, MSNBC Opinion Columnist, writes that White evangelicals dying of Covid after denouncing vaccines are wasting martyrdom. He begins,

“This year we’ve seen a number of conservative personalities, including the late evangelical leaders Marcus Lamb and Jimmy DeYoung, who succumbed to Covid-19 after minimizing the risks of the disease or making disparaging remarks about the vaccines. What is such opposition if not an arrogant attempt to put God to the test, no less problematic, say, than stepping off a great height and counting on being caught by angels?”

For those of you who missed Sunday School, that last comment is a reference to Matthew 4:5-7, in which the devil told Jesus to throw himself off the highest point of the temple so that angels would catch him. Jesus replied, ” It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Some translations render this as “You shall not tempt the Lord thy God.” There are many centuries of sermons and commentaries on Matthew 4, but most of them I’ve seen boil down to “Don’t try to manipulate God into performing a miracle to save your ass so you can show everybody what a Big Shot Holy Person you are.”

DeBerry points to a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) that shows white evangelicals are the only “religious” group in the U.S. in which a majority believe people should be able to get a religious exemption from covid vaccine mandates. (I have “religious” in quotation marks because DeBerry apparently thinks that “religion” consists entirely of Christianity and Judaism. PRRI lumps all the world’s other religious traditions under “Other non-Christian religion,” none of which appear to have religious issues with vaccines.) A majority of all the other religious groups surveyed thought there should be no religious exemption for vaccines.

There is no record I could find of evangelical leaders opposing vaccines on religious grounds in the past, before covid. The current objection appears to be some kind of shift in doctrine, even though no one is explaining what that doctrine is.

So the question is, on what basis should a religious exemption from covid vaccine mandates be allowed, from an evangelical perspective?

Although faith healing is not unknown in evangelicalism, I’m not aware of any situation in the Bible in which people were berated for consulting a physician instead of relying on God’s grace for healing. There wasn’t much in the way of medical science in those days, of course, although Greek and Roman physicians had figured out how to treat some things by Jesus’ day. But even the Romans employed prayers and chants as part of medical practice. The point is that there is nothing explicit in the Bible, and no argument from centuries of Christian theology before the 19th century or so, that provides Christians a clear religious exemption from getting covid vaccines or seeking any kind of medical treatment. Yes, this includes abortions.

In the 19th century all kinds of new religions emerged, some ostensibly Christian and some not. These include the Church of Christ, Scientist, which began in the 1870s. Christian Science has a complicated belief system about medical care that I can’t say I entirely understand. They go to medical professionals for some kinds of health care but rely on prayer alone for other kinds. From what I have read these beliefs aren’t based on the Bible or any previous school of theology. However, even the Christian Scientists these days are not rigidly dogmatic about vaccines and encourage practitioners to make up their own minds.

Here’s an article from the Council on Foreign Relations that provides some historical background on religious objections to vaccines in the U.S.. In brief, in the past there really hasn’t been much objection to vaccines based on religious beliefs. One scholar noted that American religious leaders in the 1950s and 1960s praised vaccines as gifts from God.

One of the patriarchs of evangelicalism, John Wesley (1703-1791) not only approved of the medical science of his day, he also opened free clinics and pharmaceutical dispensaries for the poor. He encouraged people to have faith and pray, also, but he encouraged people to take their physical ailments to doctors for treatment.

But evangelicalism itself has changed a lot from its origins. Many 19th century evangelicals were the flaming liberals of their day. Northern evangelicals were leaders of the Abolitionist movement, and later many were active in the Social Gospel movement, which in turn gave birth to the Progressive Era of the early 20th century. There were conservative evangelicals also, of course. But a century and more ago evangelicalism was distinct from fundamentalism, a reactionary religious movement of the late 19th century that formed as a backlash to the Social Gospel and Darwin and modernism generally.

These days evangelicallism and fundamentalism have become synonyms. The reasons for that are complicated, but very briefly over several decades fundamentalism evolved and fused with Christian nationalism, and these movements merged with conservative evangelicalism and took over one congregation after another, driving out the liberals. And this mashup makes up most of today’s “Christian Right.”

It hasn’t been that long since the liberal Jimmy Carter was not shy about calling himself an evangelical. I’m not sure he still does. There are denominations that used to be considered evangelical — the United Methodists, for example — that don’t seem to use the word “evangelical” to describe themselves any more. Likewise the liberal United Church of Christ originally grew out of the evangelical movement but has nothing to do with evangelicalism these days.

The PRRI survey made an interesting distinction between personal religious beliefs and the religious teachings of Christian denominations. “White evangelical Protestants are the only religious group among whom there is a difference between the two statements on religious prohibitions: 21% agree that getting vaccinated against COVID-19 goes against their personal religious beliefs, compared to 13% who say it goes against the teachings of their religion,” it says.

But I wonder if the refusers who say getting a covid vaccine somehow violates their religious beliefs, whether personal or institutional, could articulate how that violation occurs, if you put them on the spot to explain it. I strongly suspect what we’re seeing is a lazy assumption that if one feels getting a covid vaccine is wrong, somehow, then the Bible must agree. Somehow.

Maggie Siddiqi, senior director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress, writes that Covid vaccine and mask mandates expose alt-right Christian hypocrisy: “For many on the religious right, religious freedom only matters if it supports a right-wing political agenda.”

… for many on the religious right, religious freedom only matters if it supports a right-wing political agenda. Indeed for years, extreme-right Christian groups have been misusing religious freedom to do everything from discriminating against LGBTQ people to denying access to reproductive health care. Far from a legitimate effort to protect the right to worship freely, religious freedom has been manipulated into another tool in the Christian nationalist playbook to circumvent any law or regulation they see fit.

At the start of the pandemic, when states were compelled to issue emergency public health orders to shut down in-person gatherings, including at houses of worship, the same groups who cried “religious freedom” at any law they disliked did so once again. It quickly became clear that if they could win exemptions from emergency public health orders on religious freedom grounds — even in the face of a deadly, highly contagious disease — they could win any claim by exploiting religious freedom.

If it were not apparent enough that these supposed claims of religious freedom ring hollow, an entire industry of anti-vaccine activists have now combined forces with Christian nationalists. Some clergy are even offering to provide religious exemptions — if you pay them. Liberty Counsel, the law firm that represented Kim Davis, the county clerk in Kentucky who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, is a major player in providing legal guidance and representation to those seeking to use religious exemptions to circumvent Covid-related requirements.

But religious freedom does not matter, it seems, when Jewish groups state that life begins at birth, not at conception, and that denying the right to prioritize the life of a mother violates Jewish religious beliefs. Religious freedom does not matter when faith-based health care providers say they are morally, religiously obligated to provide care for all, without discrimination.

I am not expert in all of the world’s religions. There may be a sect somewhere that has a genuine doctrinal objection to mandates I don’t know about. But it seems to me there are no legitimate religious exemptions to the vaccine mandate.

This is not really answering the question of why so many white evangelicals are hostile to covid vaccines. I think the answer to that has nothing to do with religion. The problem is that what passes for religious doctrine among many evangelicals is nothing but consuming tribal loyalty to hard-right political views and Donald Trump. John Wesley wouldn’t recognize any of it.

New Yorkers line up for smallpox vaccines, undated illustration

20 thoughts on “Why Do Evangelicals Oppose Covid Vaccines?

  1. Evangelicals are prone to seeing various aspects of modern society as evidence of the arrival of a one-world government, replete with devices to track or prohibit your buying or selling. To wit, Revelation 13:17

    So that no one will have power to buy or sell unless he bears the stamp (mark, inscription), [that is] the name of the beast or the number of his name.

    Emerald Robinson, a Newsmax “reporter”, got very alarmed over the “fact” that the vaccines contain something called Luciferase, the name of an enzyme. Clearly, this is the means by which the beast, mentioned in Revelation is going to track you.

    • The gene for a luciferase is commonly included with the gene for the desired protein when transforming a cell line for bulk monoclonal production. Adding a bit of luciferin is a quick and simple assay for cultures in which the transformation took; if it glows, it’s a go. Not that any of these boobs have any idea how biotech works.

      • Usually a lurker, but I just had to chime in… I printed out an article about that Newsmax “reporting” and posted it next to the luminometer we use for luciferase assays. A lot of “face-palms” that day.

  2. America is such an exceptionally exceptional nation, that our "Christians" are all exceptionally religious, and our stupidest people are also exceptionally religious."

    Oh dear.

    I repeated myself.

    Excuse me.


  3. By actively resisting the vaccination they gain a sense of persecution from the blow back which translates into an confirmation for them that the hand of God is upon them. It's a simple equation for a simple mind…broad is the path that leads unto destruction, but narrow is the gate that leads unto eternal life. It's a prescription that says when you're bucking the system you're doing the right thing.

     And it doesn't help when you've got a bunch of money grubbing morons in the church leadership positions pumping your head full of nonsense to reinforce that idea. Encouraging stupidity because their livelihood / wallets depends on it.

  4. Let me return to my favorite quote from Thomas Jefferson – a portion is carved in the Jefferson Memorial without historical reference. In a letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush, TJ is discussing the opposition to his presidency by some members of the clergy. The opposition to Jefferson, running against the authoritarian President Adams, from the pulpit was sometimes vitriolic. So it is about the clergy Jefferson is writing:

    "…had given to the clergy a very favorite hope of obtaining an establishment of a particular form of Christianity thro' the U. S.; and as every sect believes its own form the true one, every one perhaps hoped for his own, but especially the Episcopalians & Congregationalists. The returning good sense of our country threatens abortion to their hopes, & they believe that any portion of power confided to me, will be exerted in opposition to their schemes."

    "And they believe rightly; for I have sworn upon the altar of god, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man. But this is all they have to fear from me: & enough too in their opinion, & this is the cause of their printing lying pamphlets against me, forging conversations…" 

    The "evangelicals" then schemed to be the power OVER government, trying to nake their particular sect the supreme religion of the country and the ruler over democracy. What's this got to do with mandates from government on public health or vaccines? It's an example of what they most detest – that government will rule over the citizen if he's a member of the religion they think should be the ruling religion whose leaders rule over government. 

    "Liberty University" should be called "Tyranny U." It;s their intent and design to indoctrinate leaders who will impose their theology on people who are not voluntarily part of the evangelical tribe. The liberty goes one way – for their tribe and all others are at best, secondary and servile to the true believers. This is no different than what Jefferson was up against.

    Ambitious and amoral dictators want to harness the power of a segment of citizens who will fight and die to defeat citizens not of their tribe or religion. AKA "heathen" The religious leaders want political power over the entire body of citizens, which the concept of democracy and the wording of the Constitution prohibits. 

  5. Barbara, thank you, thank you, thank you for clearly explaining the historical difference between evangelicalism and fundamentalism.  I have has more "debates" with people who are utterly unaware of this history or of how the two were morphed into a weird mutant form of political Christianity.

    The rest of your post is excellent as well but this really stood out to me because so few people understand enough to make that distinction, especially misunderstanding the theological differences between the  historical definitions of each.

    • Thank you. It helps that I grew up in the Bible Belt in the 1950s and 1960s, before things got really crazy. Most people I knew were either some kind of evangelical or some kind of pentacostal, although I was raised old-school Protestant (Lutheran). And the handful of local Catholics went through a liberal phase back in the days of Pope John XXIII, although they’ve gotten over that since. And most of the evangelicals that I knew back then had at least a rudimentary understanding of the traditional doctrinal distinctions of evangelicalism. Nowadays all that seems to have gone out the window, and what passes for evangelicalism appears to have become nearly untethered from doctrine and theology and is just about politics and culture wars. I’m sure there are still some old-school evangelicals out there, but they don’t get on teevee.

  6. What a holiday present this piece is, and the kind of work that few writers could pull off.  To write this takes more than an entry level course in comparative religion.  You must go down more than a few deep dark "rabbit holes" of strange metaphysical, religious, and political thought and belief.  The most difficult part must be to get back out of all these "rabbit holes" mentally intact enough to write a competent article about those who inhabit these altered realities.  That takes mental toughness at the highest level.  

    Rabbit hole denizens do not really know what is happening in other rabbit holes, except that THOSE PEOPLE are in the wrong rabbit hole.  As I recall someone counted all the religions in the world and came up with a number in the thousands.  As far as I can find not a single one of them will tell you they might not be the true one. It is one of the few notions they all seem to have in common. 

    In the United States I have found another generality that holds in most every rabbit hole.  They all have codes of approved foods that disregard food rules of the major old religions like Islam and Judaism.  No Halal or Kosher for them, all they need is a religious fervor for fried chicken which is the most sacred of foods.  You would think that divine influence would assure they all had heavenly fried bird, but not all get equally blessed.  You get potluck on that one.  Some things in almost all religions are at the mercy of the god of good luck.  You should not test that god too much either.  It's a fickle one for sure. 



  7. IMO, this ("evangelical" anti-vaxx-ism) is just another example of GOP propaganda work running off the rails. 

    The GOP intentionally subverted "evangelical preachers in the late 1970's to undermine Carter's re-election campaign.  They – through Paul Weyrich, IIRC – CREATED the Religious Right ("Moral Majority", a perfect double oxymoron).  The GOP meshed this with their Southern Strategy by pushing for public funding for private/religious schools – which was really a cover for helping racist Whites get their kids out of integrated schools.  This also meshed nicely with the general Republican/Libertarian opposition to providing public services (like education) via Government (rich people don't want their children to have to compete with smart poor kids).

    The GOP had previously latched onto (anti-)Abortion as an issue to woo Catholics away from the Democratic Party, and they leveraged that to grab & hold Evangelicals, too.

    The alliance with the Religious Right cost the GOP almost nothing, at first – just a promise to stack the Supreme Court.  But by 1992, some Wall Street money – which had previously gone exclusively to the GOP – got scared by the power of the Evangelicals in the GOP, and gave the Clintons enough money to save the Democratic Party from extinction.

    GOP kept their hold on the Evangelical vote through the Bush/Cheney years without any real policy changes.  But through this time, the GOP started to lose control of the propaganda organs that kept their Base in line.  Rupert Murdoch got very rich as a GOP puppet, but his audience – and therefore his advertisers – wanted stronger doses of revenge porn each year, and FOX was glad to provide it.  This quickly went waaay beyond what the GOP was willing to promise in its official Platform; more & more, GOP politicians had to speak one language to the general public, while dog-whistling to the crazy Base.

    I suspect that the same thing happened within Evangelical congregations, as preachers found that they needed to keep moving more to the right to keep their jobs.

    When Obama was elected, the crazies could no longer be contained.  The cognitive dissonance of having a Black President broke all links to reality, and the Internet provided alternate realities.  The GOP (via donors like Koch Bros) managed to manipulate the Tea Party movement, but at each step, the Old Guard of the GOP lost influence, as the Crazies moved into positions of power in the Party.

    This all came to a head in 2016, when the crazies ignored the 15 "normal" Republican candidates and swept Trump into power, because he told them what they wanted to hear, with no regard for civility or reality.  The GOP – largely via FOX – had created a monster, and now the Mob was in charge.

    And again, this process was mirrored in the Evangelical movement, where preachers recognized that their income depended on giving their flock what it wanted: MORE.

    The perverse reverence for Trump by Evangelicals is truly bizarre.  I don't understand how people could fall for that; maybe it's just because they really enjoy watching our heads explode as we try to make sense of it.

    But Trump Must Be Right About Everything, or they're all Lost.

    When COVID came along, it annoyed Trump.  It was politically inconvenient – Bad News, when only Good News was acceptable.  Worse, the virus ignored all his Tweets – and a supreme Narcissist cannot tolerate anyone or anything which does not pay attention to him.  So, Trump was compelled to ignore Covid as revenge for its temerity in ignoring him.


    Evangelicals – and therefore, their preachers – took their cues from their newly chosen Saviour.  Doctors – and especially, institutions like the CDC – became the enemy, because they didn't play along. 


    (Bonus guess: I bet that a lot of doctors in rural areas are immigrants – born, raised, and educated in other countries, who moved here for better pay & living conditions.  US doesn't produce enough Doctors, and most of them wind up in urban settings with higher pay?)

    • elkern — Mostly, yes. It goes back further, though. Before court ordered school desegregation in the 1950s and 1960s, white Bible Belt evangelicals were big supporters of public schools and had no tolerance for tax money going to “parochial” schools, which in those days meant Catholic schools. But first came the court rulings that ended prayers in public school classrooms. And then when their public schools began to integrate, suddenly a lot of white evangelical parents decided they wanted their children to get “Christian” educations. So then they began to organize private day schools, which by coincidence were all white. This was when they began to badmouth public schools, ca. 1960. (And then when private schools had to integrate, the hard core among them discovered home schooling.)

      Reproductive rights went through a similar shift in position among evangelicals. Abortion wasn’t an evangelical issue until a few years after Roe v. Wade. Political operatives like Paul Weyrich persuaded the likes of Jerry Falwell that the fight for segregation was lost, but ending legal abortion was an issue that would keep them politically relevant. Now they seem to think that stopping abortion is all Jesus taught.

    • You got that COVID link nailed down.  The Evangelical god would not send the COVID plague to his chosen country with its chosen leader in charge.  That would not fit the theology of dimwit.  Ergo, the faithful get a Passover without blood painted on their door.  Unfortunately, the angle of death missed the memo and nailed a couple of high-profile preachers and many of the faithful.  Now who could have seen something like that coming?

    • Rupert Murdoch was never a GOP "puppet". He is not now, and never  has been, anyone's puppet.

      Murdoch has great power over the GOP, they have none over him. He has a global media empire, which means he knows where the bodies are buried on every continent. Never underestimate his reach or his power: he makes J. Edgar Hoover look small time.

  8. In 1966 New York State became the first state to allow vaccination exemptions for religious reasons. This law was passed under pressure from Christian Scientists.

    Ironically, I don't know if there are any Christian Scientists today, outside of the publishing office of the Christian Science Monitor.

    Anyway, the exemption was ended in 2019 by then governor Andrew Cuomo. At the time there was a massive outbreak of measles in the suburban Hudson valley section of New York.

    Today, 44 states and D.C. allow exemptions for various levels of religious objections, or personal, moral or other beliefs.

    Must be that quite a few people worship at the Church of the Intentionally Vague.


    • I don't know if there are any Christian Scientists today, outside of the publishing office of the Christian Science Monitor.

      I used to work with one. She got into a car accident driving home from work one day, some injuries but survivable, then died because she refused medical treatment.

  9. I wonder how much of antivax is motivated by fear of needles.

    I learned, when I was very young, that the fear of the needle is worse than the needle itself.

    • Great link.  We do not manage to teach, as Degrass states, the scientific approach to separating truth from untruth in schools today, which is the essential element of teaching science at all.  It is no wonder we have so many people who have broken bullshit detectors.  

      Evangelical's do tend to think, it seems, they have the only path to truth and consider science as unwelcome competition.  That is a quite primitive religious position which I thought until recently settled hundreds of years ago.  Now we have religions that contend people existed with Dinosaurs and build theme parks with that distortion. I'm sorry, but that is not a very convincing argument to me they got that one right. 


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