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When it comes to vaccine resistance, are anti-vax pastors really the problem?

New research unveils that very few American faith leaders actively discourage vaccination, and they rarely talk about vaccines either way

Photo Illustration by Alex Cochran

Anti-vax pastors have faced broad pushback as the United States works to boost its vaccination rate. But new research shows policymakers and public health officials may get a bigger payoff by focusing, instead, on the much larger group of faith leaders who mostly ignore the vaccine debate.

Pew Research Center’s latest survey on religion and COVID-19 revealed that just 5% of Americans classified as “religious attenders” — a group made up of people who typically attend church at least monthly and anyone else who went to a worship service in the past month — have pastors who reject COVID-19 vaccines.

Religious attenders were much more likely to report that their faith leaders have “not said much about the vaccines either way.”

Pew’s survey also confirmed earlier research showing that many Americans trust their pastors’ advice. More than 6 in 10 religious attenders have at least “a fair amount” of confidence in faith leaders at their house of worship to provide guidance about COVID-19 vaccines.

“This figure is virtually identical to the share who express confidence in public health officials, such as those at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” researchers noted. Pew’s survey was fielded from Sept. 20-26 and features responses from 6,485 U.S. adults.

The Rev. Patricia Hailes Fears, pastor of the Fellowship Baptist Church in Washington, is given the J&J COVID-19 vaccine.
The Rev. Patricia Hailes Fears, pastor of the Fellowship Baptist Church in Washington, is given the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine during a gathering of a group of interfaith clergy members, community leaders and officials at the Washington National Cathedral, to encourage faith communities to get the COVID vaccine, on Tuesday, March 16, 2021 in Washington.
Manuel Balce Ceneta, Associated Press

Overall, 82% of religious attenders with pro-vaccine pastors are fully vaccinated, compared to 58% of religious attenders with faith leaders who are either anti-vax or avoid the topic of vaccines, according to additional data provided to the Deseret News.

The survey does not address causation, which means it’s not possible to say whether clergy encouragement of vaccination explains this higher vaccination rate. But these findings may still point to a missed opportunity within the country’s vaccine push.

It’s clear that pastors who currently avoid the topic of vaccines have many unvaccinated Americans in their pews. If community leaders convinced at least some of these faith leaders to encourage vaccination, it’s possible that interest — and trust — in the COVID-19 vaccines would increase.

“Religious attenders express more trust in their clergy on this issue than they do in state elected officials, local elected officials or news media. Among the options presented by the survey, only primary care doctors rank above clergy,” Pew reported.

This hypothesis might already have been proven true within the Black church.

Earlier this year, when the vaccination rate for Black Americans was lagging behind the rate for white Americans, public health officials formed strategic partnerships with Black pastors. In the months since, “the vaccination gap has closed,” as Pew senior researcher Stephanie Kramer noted in a piece digging into the new data.

As of late September, nearly two-thirds of religious attenders who worship at historically Black Protestant churches had heard their pastor encourage people to get vaccinated, Pew found. That’s more than double the share of members of this group who said their faith leaders have ignored or avoided the vaccine debate.

In general, it’s likely easier to convert faith leaders who avoid discussing vaccination to vaccine evangelists than it is to convince anti-vax pastors to make the same transition. However, Pew’s report did identify one trend that may complicate this conversion: Americans increasingly want houses of worship to steer clear of social and political debates.

“Fully 7 in 10 U.S. adults now say that, in general, churches and other houses of worship should keep out of political matters, up from 63% the last time this question was asked, in March 2019,” researchers noted.

Although public health officials may not see vaccination decisions as a political matter, everyday Americans often do. At least some pastors are likely avoiding the topic of vaccines in hopes of sidestepping the associated partisan tensions.

“Almost from the get-go, we have not made this a health conversation. We have made this a political debate,” said Brian Castrucci, president and CEO of a public health organization in Bethesda, Maryland, to the Deseret News in August.

Still, there are many people of faith who feel the vaccination rate is too important to ignore. In recent months, everyone from Pope Francis to NBA player Enes Kanter have attempted to encourage religious communities to embrace vaccines.

“I’ve talked to a lot of religious guys — I’m like: ‘It saves people’s lives, so what is more important than that?’” Kanter said to Rolling Stone last month.