Bringing the Covid-19 pandemic to an end will require the active participation of religious Americans, who should view vaccines as an answered prayer rather than a threat to their faith.
2020 was a humbling year. Nobody’s life was left untouched by a virus that took the lives of more than 344,000 Americans and 1.8 million people around the world. We mourned in isolation and grieved a failed national response to contain the ravages of the pandemic. If you weren’t the praying type already, chances are you prayed some in 2020.
While the distribution is unfortunately staggeringly behind schedule in the US, the Pfizer and Moderna Covid-19 vaccines bring us hope going into 2021. Other promising vaccines are on the horizon. In less than a month, the White House will be occupied by someone who takes the pandemic seriously. There are reasons to hope, but also more challenges ahead.
It’s unsurprising that some religious communities have cast doubt on the vaccine. A 2019 study found that religion and vaccine refusal are linked. A study in Australia this year found that people with “higher levels of religiosity” were more likely to be hesitant or resistant about their intent to get vaccinated. Religious skepticism has been around since the invention of vaccines in the West in 1796, when some religious leaders viewed the smallpox vaccine as “acting against God’s will.” Today, remnants of that anti-science argument remain. Influential evangelical pastor John Hagee, for example, has said (before the approval of either vaccine) that “Jesus is the vaccine.”
But faith leaders are important messengers to Americans skeptical about their intent to be vaccinated. According to Pew Research Center, in November 60% of Americans said they would definitely or probably get a vaccine for the coronavirus. That’s up from 51% who in Pew’s September poll, but down from 72% in May. It seems clear that many Americans’ minds aren’t made up.
“The church or organized religion” is one of the more trusted institutions in our country, according to Gallup. Leaders in communities across the United States — including New York City, Southern California, Dallas, Denver, New Jersey, Austin — are engaging faith leaders to sow trust around vaccines.
The government official leading the charge with faith communities is Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes for Health and a practicing Christian. He was awarded the $1.3 million Templeton Prize earlier this year because, judges said, throughout his career, he “has urged faith communities to trust science.”
“If we’re going to actually get to the point where Covid-19 is conquered, it’s going to require a full investment by everybody in that solution, which is to acquire immunity,” he said in a recent interview with the Washington Post. “And the way to get there without losing hundreds of thousands of more lives is going to be the vaccine.”
“There is a tendency in many White evangelical churches to assume that science is atheistic,” he said in the same interview. “God gave us both a sense of God’s love and care and compassion, but he also gave us the brain and the opportunity to understand God’s creation, which is nature, which includes things like viruses. And I think God expected us to use those gifts to understand how to protect ourselves and others from disease. If we have the opportunity to heal through medicine, I think God expects us to do that and not count on some supernatural intervention to come and save us when he’s already given us the chance to be saved by other means.”
His words echoed the sentiment expressed by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who said earlier in the year: “I am a devout Catholic; I believe in miracles. And I pray for them, but I think that science is an answer to our prayers, too.”
Vaccine skepticism is not unique to Christianity. Muslim and Jewish leaders are also building trust in the vaccines by making sure members of their communities know that taking vaccines are consistent with religious teachings. “Testimony from scientists alone will not rid Americans of their doubts,” Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the former CEO of the international Rabbinical Assembly, wrote in an op-ed for Religion News Service.
While some anti-vaccine misinformation is pure conspiracy theory, it’s understandable that Black Americans would be skeptical of government health officials because of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. It’s up to our medical and political leaders to work with Black community leaders, including Black religious leaders, to sow trust where the government has in the past done great harm.
“I have to, as a religious leader, be willing to say that yes, those events happened. They were awful. They should never have happened,” Cardinal Wilton Gregory, the first Black American Cardinal in the Catholic Church said in a recent interview. “But let’s not miss the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of this medical scientific discovery. Let’s not allow the past to keep us from having a future.”
Another religious objection has been raised around the use of cells derived from human fetuses electively aborted in the vaccine research. But the Vatican has cleared the way for Catholics for those vaccines, ruling them “morally acceptable.”
Francis Collins referenced a Bible passage from Philippians 4 while speaking to Southern Baptists about the vaccines. “Brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things,'” Collins said. “That would apply really well right here. So whatever is true.”
The truth is that the development and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines are answers to our prayers to end this pandemic. Faith communities have an important role in spreading that message.