When Curtis chang I heard that many evangelical Christians were reluctant To get vaccinated against COVID-19, he suspected it could help. A former pastor who now consults on strategy and planning for governments and nonprofits, Chang knew he could mobilize pastors to educate and encourage their congregations. So early this year, Chang, who is also on the faculty at Duke University School of Divinity and the American University School of International Service, launched a project called Christians and the vaccine in an effort to change the mindset of the faithful.
Chang’s group produces a series of videos that dispel some of the myths that are widely circulated among evangelicals; some believe that the vaccine is a form of government control or contains fetal tissue and is therefore pro-abortion. The group works with organizations such as the National Association of Evangelicals and the Ad Council to distribute the videos both to churches and through social media. Chang’s technique appears to be working: Researchers at Columbia University and the Stanford Laboratory for Polarization and Social Change conducted a study on vaccine-doubting Christians using a Christian and the vaccine video with Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health and a devout Christian. . Two groups were shown videos of Collins and an essay on medical experts endorsing vaccines. In one group, however, the content was slightly modified to highlight the Christian identity of Collins and other medical experts. That group reported increased intentions to get vaccinated and a greater willingness to encourage others to get vaccinated, suggesting that shared values can help medical experts bridge the gap with vaccine-doubting Christians. I spoke with Chang about why it is difficult for religious leaders to encourage vaccination, how to reach religious people who doubt vaccines, and the dangers of American Christians exporting their anti-vaccine beliefs abroad.
On the evangelical mistrust of institutions: There is no single reason that is true for all evangelicals as to why they doubt vaccinations. The key idea is that underneath those specific questions and fears is a general mistrust of institutions, especially secular institutions. It is critical to realize that here, because everyone, Christian or non-Christian, only takes the vaccine to the extent that we trust the institutions. None of us, except a few elite scientists, truly understands, in depth, all the studies, all the details of the vaccine. The vast majority of people get vaccinated because they trust the CDC, FDA, federal government, state, local public health officials, etc. What happened to American evangelicals is that the level of mistrust of institutions has skyrocketed in the last five to ten years or so. And that is why you are seeing so much widespread mistrust of the vaccine. More than 50 percent of white evangelicals, in particular, say they don’t get vaccinated.
On the forces driving vaccine vacillation among evangelicals: Historically, the evangelical movement has instilled in him a certain distrust of dominant secular institutions. And this can be captured in the saying that Jesus called us to be in the world, not the world. We are not of the world in the sense that we simply adjust automatically to the assumptions and beliefs of the world. But what happened is that this mistrust orientation has become a weapon.
There have been three main forces that I think have done that. One is that, in fact, you can get a lot of audience ratings by playing on those fears of what Washington is doing or what the left is doing. Christians are being bombarded by so many conservative media that they automatically assume they want to get us. Another is that conservative politicians have realized that many votes can be obtained by exalting these fears. And then the third is a kind of outside conspiracy moves. QAnon, the anti-vaccine movement, have realized that evangelicals are fertile hunting grounds for their theories, because they are already prepared to mistrust institutions, so they can easily be recruited into their deep mistrust conspiracies.
On the persuasion of vaccines on biblical and spiritual grounds: You have to understand that what is happening in these churches is that the pastors are under enormous pressure. They have already been surprised in the sense that their congregation is more radicalized than they are; polls show that the majority of evangelical pastors are in favor of vaccines. But they find that if they come up and talk really loud about this Sunday morning, Monday morning, they get a series of angry emails from people who have been listening to Tucker Carlson seven days a week. You talk to many evangelical pastors, they are on a fine line in realizing that they cannot go too far in the direction of masks or vaccines, even if they personally believe that is the right thing to do, for fear of backlash.
We are trying to spread that message and not put the whole burden on a local Christian pastor. If someone is going to be angry, they will be angry with me, they will not be angry with a pastor. But because these are short videos that can be shared, they can be injected where I think a lot of this battle is being fought. There is not going to be a fight on Sunday morning, because again, pastors will be too disincentive to preach on this. There is fighting on social media and on social media, between someone in the church who is willing to share information about the vaccine that counteracts the mark of the scary beast or that there is a tracking chip, or this is a form of government control, and so on. It’s the extreme anti-vaccines that really get a lot of hype, but I think there is a large percentage of evangelicals that can still move, and they are increasingly mobile, because of what they are seeing with Delta and the rising rates. .
On coercion tactics to convince the unvaccinated: I understand that people are frustrated, that they are losing their patience, that they just want to do things by mandate and stop trying to persuade these people. I think it’s myopic, for a couple of reasons. One, if you just resort to sheer coercion, you just confirm the narrative that they’re trying to get us, that they’re shoving things down our throats. It’s just laying the groundwork for a deepening divide. The second reason is that you must realize that we are still in the first or second entry in the reach of vaccines globally. You must realize that parts of Africa and Asia are heavily influenced by Christian culture. A country like Uganda is like 90 percent Christian. Those churches, those places in Africa, actually take their cultural cues largely from American evangelicals, especially leading white evangelical voices. So America, unfortunately, through evangelical culture, is exporting its vacillation vacillation. Many of the same conspiracy theories, doubts and fears that we have been wrestling with here, we are definitely seeing emerge and replicate in the rest of the world. Changing American culture is not just about getting more American evangelicals vaccinated, it will be critical to getting the rest of the world vaccinated. And ultimately, for all of us, if we don’t vaccinate everyone, we are all at risk.
On the next phase of the pandemic: What will be really important for Christians is to convey to other Christians that it is okay to change your mind. The Christian virtues of grace and acceptance will be paramount here because people will resist even more if they think that by changing their minds they will be ashamed.