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'Love Your Neighbor' And Get The Shot: White Evangelical Leaders Push COVID Vaccines

Apr 5, 2021
Originally published on April 6, 2021 3:16 pm

Jared Cornutt has heard some farfetched concerns about the coronavirus vaccine in some of his Southern Baptist Facebook groups.

"I have a very hard time getting from vaccine to the Mark of the Beast," Cornutt said, referring to one baseless rumor that linked vaccination requirements to an idea in Revelation, the apocalyptic book at the end of the New Testament.

Cornutt is a pastor in Irving, Texas. He said thankfully, he hasn't heard that in his church. But he has run across some skepticism and confusion about the science behind the coronavirus vaccine.

"I think there's just misinformation as well," he said.

Theologically fraught conspiracy theories have been swirling online, particularly in some evangelical circles. In a recent video posted online, U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., similarly suggested — without evidence — a connection between the Mark of the Beast and vaccines.

Nationally, white evangelicals report a high degree of vaccine hesitancy in multiple surveys. One recent study released by the Ad Council found that just over half of white evangelicals said they were likely to get vaccinated, compared with 64% of evangelicals of color. Both groups were well below the rate for nonevangelicals, 77%.

Cornutt said some church members who oppose abortion also have moral concerns about how some of the vaccines were developed, including research involving fetal cells from abortions performed decades ago. Cornutt said he's pointed them to expert sources and reassured them that he believes the vaccine is safe and ethical.

Several national evangelical leaders also are speaking out in support of vaccination, including the Rev. Franklin Graham, son of the late Rev. Billy Graham. Graham's charity, Samaritan's Purse, set up several field hospitals to treat COVID-19 patients around the world.

"We have seen firsthand — at least I have — what coronavirus can do to a person," Graham told NPR. "It's frightening, and you don't want it."

After posting on Facebook about his decision to get the Moderna vaccine, Graham received thousands of comments — some showing support but many expressing outrage, calling Graham a false prophet, among other things.

His niece, Jerusha Duford, is a granddaughter of Billy Graham and a critic of the white evangelical Christian right. She wants more evangelical leaders to encourage their followers to get vaccinated.

"I want the church to fight for others more than they're fighting for themselves; that's what I have not seen over the last year," Duford said. "And that's what we're called to do."

Evangelical resistance to the COVID-19 vaccine presents a public health challenge, given that as many as 1 in 4 Americans of all racial backgrounds identify as such.

Robert Bednarczyk, an epidemiologist at Emory University's Rollins School of Public Health, said there's a risk within churches, and to the broader community.

"If we're not able to address those concerns, we're facing the problem of not just individual people not getting vaccinated but potentially spreading that misinformation or disinformation to others," he said.

Walter Kim, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, said misinformation and political polarization have contributed to the problem in his religious community. His group is partnering with the Ad Council on a new initiative reaching out to evangelicals with the message that getting the coronavirus vaccine may be a way to "love your neighbor."

"The more we can move the discourse from a discourse about politics and political affiliation to one of mission, of love for neighbor, of following Jesus — who would honor the image of God in others — then I think we're tapping into something profoundly motivating for evangelicals," Kim said.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Public health officials are hoping a national vaccine campaign can stop the spread of COVID-19, but some groups are hesitant to get on board, among them white evangelicals. Surveys show they're among the people least likely to say they will get the vaccine. NPR's Sarah McCammon reports on how pastors and public health leaders are working to change that among one of the nation's largest religious groups.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: In a certain segment of Christian eschatology, which is just a big word for what you think will happen at the end of the world, there's this idea of the mark of the beast. For the uninitiated, it's bad, and if you want to go to heaven, you'd better not get it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARJORIE TAYLOR GREENE: And I asked the question earlier today, is this something like Biden's mark of the beast? - because that is really disturbing and not good.

MCCAMMON: That's Georgia Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene in a recent video posted online. Greene is suggesting - and, I have to say here, without evidence - a connection between that idea and vaccines. Jared Cornet is a pastor in Irving, Texas, and he's heard this, too, in some of his Southern Baptist Facebook groups.

JARED CORNET: But to me, I have a very hard time from getting the vaccine to the mark of the beast.

MCCAMMON: Cornet says thankfully, he hasn't heard that in his church, but he has run across some skepticism and misunderstandings about the science behind the coronavirus vaccine. Nationally, white evangelicals report a high degree of vaccine hesitancy. In one recent survey, just over half said they were likely to get vaccinated compared to 64% of evangelicals of color. Both groups were well below the rate for non-evangelicals - 77%.

CORNET: And I think there's just disinformation as well.

MCCAMMON: Cornet says some church members who oppose abortion also have moral concerns about how some of the vaccines were developed, including research involving fetal cells from abortions performed decades ago. Cornet has pointed them to expert sources and reassured them that he believes the vaccine is safe and ethical. These concerns about the vaccine pose a public health challenge, given that as many as 1 in 4 Americans of all racial backgrounds identify as evangelical. Several national evangelical leaders also are speaking out in support of vaccination, including Franklin Graham, son of the late Reverend Billy Graham.

FRANKLIN GRAHAM: We have seen firsthand - at least I have - what coronavirus can do to a person. And it's frightening, and you don't want it.

MCCAMMON: Graham's charity Samaritan's Purse set up several field hospitals to treat COVID-19 patients around the world. After posting on Facebook about his decision to get the Moderna vaccine, Graham received thousands of comments, some showing support but many expressing outrage, calling Graham a false prophet among other things. His niece, Jerushah Duford, is a granddaughter of Billy Graham and a frequent critic of the white evangelical Christian right. She wants more evangelical leaders to encourage their followers to get vaccinated.

JERUSHAH DUFORD: I want the church to fight for others more than they're fighting for themselves. That's what I have not seen over the last year, and that's what we're called to do.

MCCAMMON: Walter Kim, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, says church leaders can do that by changing the way they talk about the virus.

WALTER KIM: The more we can move the discourse from a discourse about politics and political affiliation to the discourse of mission of love for neighbor, then I think we're tapping into something profoundly motivating for evangelicals.

MCCAMMON: Kim's group is partnering with the Ad Council on a new initiative reaching out to evangelicals with the message that getting the coronavirus vaccine may be a way to love your neighbor and love God.

Sarah McCammon, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHAMPION'S "MONTECRISTO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.