White evangelical ‘vaccine skepticism’ doesn’t not come from the pulpit

White evangelical ‘vaccine skepticism’ doesn’t not come from the pulpit April 7, 2021

Drive an hour west, get the shot. That’s how it worked for my family. The Slacktivixen and I scored our first Moderna shots last week out past Reading, while younger daughter got her single-shot J&J vaccine somewhere out near Hershey.

Appointments for the hottest tickets in medicine were much harder to find here in the Philly ‘burbs partly because there are just a lot more people here. That makes the lines and waiting lists longer. But it’s also a function of greater “vaccine hesitancy” out in the “T” of Pennsylvania — the right-wing, Bible-belt, Trumpland of Pennsyltucky.

The middle of Pa. isn’t as homogenously MAGA as the gerrymandered state legislature makes it look. Like most “red states,” it’s also 45-to-49% “blue,” but the culture, religion, and media that dominate there ensure that the white chauvinist majority keeps hegemony and control over much of everything between Parkesburg and Pittsburg.* And all of that means that its a lot easier to get a vaccine appointment out there than it is back here amongst the “coastal elites” of Chester County.

White evangelical “minister” and Q-researcher Craig James expresses his gratitude to 8kun owner and pornographer Jim Watkins in this screenshot from Cullen Hoback’s HBO documentary “Q: Into the Storm.”

Recent national surveys confirmed that our family’s anecdotal experience isn’t exceptional — reluctance to get vaccinated turns out to be far higher among white Republicans, and especially among white evangelical Republicans, than it is among the rest of the populace. Trump-voting white Americans, it seems, are particularly predisposed to say, “My doctor says I can get a free shot will protect me and my family from the deadly disease that has killed more than 600,000 Americans, so now I hate my doctor.”

That’s an astonishingly dumb and self-destructive thing to say or think, so let’s note that it’s not true of most white evangelicals or of most white Republicans — with majorities of both of those understanding that getting vaccinated from a lethal, pandemic virus is an unambiguously Good Thing. But it’s a slender majority — with only 53% of white evangelicals saying they’re getting or have gotten the vaccine, according to a study by the Ad Council. That’s in line with a Pew study from February which found 54% of white evangelicals saying that.

A survey by the Associated Press phrased the question slightly differently and got slightly different results — finding that 40% of white evangelicals say they’ll refuse the vaccine. That’s a lot higher than the percentage of any other group saying No Thanks, Commie, I Prefer The Deadly Virus.

AP national correspondent David Crary reported on that survey and did a fine job getting reactions to it from an assortment of prominent white evangelical leaders as well as representative regular folks. Crary’s report got picked up from the wire by media outlets all over the country. As always when that happens, it’s interesting to see the choices and perspectives offered by the different headlines those outlets provided for otherwise identical reports.

ABC News went with “Vaccine skepticism runs deep among white evangelicals in US.”

Skepticism of COVID-19 vaccine greatest among an unlikely group: white evangelicals,” The (Greensboro, NC) News & Record says, with little support from Crary’s piece to justify that “unlikely” characterization.

Fox9 News in the Twin Cities went with “Poll: 40% of evangelical Protestants, largest religious group in US, hesitant to get COVID-19 vaccine.”

Christianity Today opted for a different approach, getting downright defensive with its headline: “Evangelicals’ Vaccine Skepticism Isn’t Coming from the Pulpit.” I suppose “It’s Not Our Fault That So Many White Evangelicals Have Lost Their Damn Minds, They’re Getting That Nonsense From Hannity And Charisma And Christian Radio, Not From Us, We’re The Reasonable And Respectable Ones” would have been too long.

CT’s comic defensiveness is understandable — the magazine, read by tens of thousands of white evangelical clergy, has consistently pushed back against anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers ever since the outbreak of the pandemic more than a year ago. And there are several examples in Crary’s article that highlight white evangelical pastors — even full-on Trumpies like Robert Jeffress — who have been urging their congregations to get the shot and protect themselves from the virus.

But Crary also talks to pastors who demonstrate that, for many white evangelical churches, vaccine skepticism is coming from the pulpit:

Aaron Harris, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Junction City, Kansas, hasn’t discussed the vaccine from the pulpit or decided whether he’ll be vaccinated. …

John Elkins, pastor at Sovereign Grace Fellowship in Brazoria, Texas, about 50 miles south of Houston, said only one person in his SBC congregation of about 50 has been vaccinated.

“We’re in a very libertarian area. There’s a lot of hesitancy to anything that feels like it’s coming from the federal government,” said Elkins, who is also forgoing the vaccine, at least for now, along with his wife.

There’s a blurry line between a pastor saying, “It’s up to you, personally, but I’m not getting the shot” and a pastor saying, “Don’t get the shot.”

Scratch that. There’s no line at all. It’s the same thing.

CT’s Don’t Blame Us argument regarding the lethal reality-denying stupidity of “vaccine skepticism” echoes its years-long Don’t Blame Us defensiveness about white evangelicals’ overwhelming, worshipful support of Donald Trump. My joking paraphrase of their headline above repeats a central claim of that DBU defense: That white evangelical Trump love is coming from other sources, not from “the pulpit,” and not from their churches/pastors/religion. This defense is often framed as a lamentation, with some variation of “My sermon only reaches them for one hour a week, but Fox News has them for 10 hours a week.”

That’s valid. But what’s not valid is the implicit suggestion that pastors and other would-be “leaders” whose followers are following Trump and Fox and Q instead have no ability to respond to this other than with a despairing shrug. If the five hours of Tucker and five hours of Hannity and 20 hours of Salem radio your congregation is hearing is shaping them more than the few hours they’re spending in church, then maybe it’s time to spend that sermon hour preaching against the poisonous lies of Fox and Breitbart and right-wing “Family Radio.” Otherwise you’ve surrendered to the fact that your congregation is going to be discipled by Fox and Q and not by their church. And you’ve guaranteed that your spiritual and practical influence on their lives will be as feckless, useless, and impotent as that of the Revs. Harris and Elkins.

You can’t complain that right-wing media have usurped the church’s role when the church itself has abdicated that role, refusing to stand up against those usurpers.

Which is also to say that Christianity Today needs to spend its energy challenging the right-wing media’s toxic influence on white evangelicals instead of merely pointing to it as the reason they shouldn’t be blamed for white evangelical Trumpism.

Which brings us back to yesterday’s post, discussing Cullen Hoback’s documentary series on 8chan and “The creepy men behind the QAnon hoax.” Who has greater influence on the discipleship of white evangelical Americans and the actual content and practice of their faith: The editorial board of Christianity Today? Or Ron Watkins and his nihilist army of meme-spreading Pepe-chans?

I think it’s the latter.

* Measuring the “redness” or “blueness” of an area by using vote percentages obscures the fact that a roughly equivalent share of Americans in both “red” and “blue” regions don’t vote at all. In mostly “red” areas like central Pennsylvania, my sense is that most of these non-voters generally align with the generally “red” culture of the area. My guess is that many of these non-voters are also proud non-voters of the sort who imagine that their status as irresponsible bystanders keeps them blameless and “above the fray” and I’d bet this makes them more likely to be “vaccine skeptics” as well. (And they’d find that misleading euphemism — “skeptics” — to be deliciously flattering and congratulatory. This is, after all, how they imagine themselves, not as irresponsible non-voters, but as superior “electoral skeptics.”)

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