As life slowly returns to normalcy, a menacing roadblock stands in the way of fully mitigating the Pandemic: Evangelical Christians. According to an article in the New York Times titled White Evangelical Resistance is Obstacle in Vaccination Effort, white evangelicals are the least likely individuals to get vaccinated. Nearly 45% of white evangelicals will most likely not get a vaccine. This distrust in vaccines stems from a community wariness in science and a plethora of misinformation. Trump’s presidency and the recent democratic backsliding our country has faced have played a large role in fostering this community’s identity of distrust for vaccines. This is an exclusionary sect identity that will harm millions and tear down the pillars of our democratic institutions if not changed.
Religion has long played a role in the governance of our nation. Our anthem sings to the tune of “In God is our trust” and our schools chant “One Nation Under God” to a monotonous rhythm. Nationalism and Christianity are heavily intertwined, and none have a stronger bond than patriotic evangelicals. This is not an inherently negative relationship nor a blind attack on evangelicalism. Civil freedoms, religious discourse, and a diverse populace are a necessity for a successful democracy, and evangelicals fit into that realm. But the threat to democracy fully emerged under Regan and his mass appeal to evangelicals and the moral majority. This provided needed representation for many evangelicals, but the moral majority campaigned for civil liberties that were inherently antipluralist and undermined the civil liberties of many other religious groups and ethnicities. These denials included opposition to the Equal Rights protection act and an attempt at forced Jewish conversion.
Covid-19 has further posed a fertile environment for the undermining of democracy, with populists preying on groups such as Evangelicals. As economist Acemoglu states in Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Crisis’ always opens a door for populism: We have seen it both with Fujimori in Peru, and Chavez in Venezuela. The Covid-19 pandemic created a toxic political environment. There was an influx in misinformation for the novel virus, because there was no previous research and no prior qualifications to be an expert or sufficient authority in the field. Trust was hard to establish, and instead, groups resorted to information within their own group identity adding further polarization to an already fragile divide.
The pandemic also began within a tense election period, and Covid-19 became strongly politicized in a variety of issues. Trump was able to prey on group identities, particularly religious groups. He stated how Covid-19 was taking churches out of communities and advocated for their reopening. Furthermore, he implied that the government didn’t want to hold Muslims to the same standard. Right-wing media further created an Us vs. Them divide by spreading conspiracies that an anti-christian agenda was overtaking our nation. Trump tried to validate economic failures with Covid-19 and was slow to instill Covid-19 regulations building dangerous rhetoric that the disease wasn’t serious and that liberals want to kill local businesses. When the severity of Covid-19 became further realized, Trump backed track and tried to convince followers that he had been on top of regulations all along, spreading more false information.
Now, as vaccines become available, people have grown more skeptical due to the constant rhetoric that has been spread for over a year. Religious identities like Evangelicals feel threatened by the vaccination process and authority figures in their communities fail to validate the scientists. Religion is a nonfalsifiable belief, and it is near impossible to invalidate their beliefs. Religion leads Evangelicals to believe strongly in Pro-Life. Rhetoric stating how vaccines have fetal tissue leads to mistrust for vaccines and stems from a general distrust for institutions within their identity.
Group identity is not harmful unless it undermines others’ rights. They can not undermine others’ rights by themselves, but need to be activated by populists within government such as Majorie Taylor Greene who actively try to dissuade scientific reasoning. Majorie Taylor Greene has recently headed a #FireFauci campaign trying to cloud the public sphere. This inherently undemocratic because unequal access to accurate information limits one of the main ideas of Dahl’s perfect democracy: public inclusivity. If the masses are not getting accurate information, the pillars of democracy are in severe danger. False media is unavoidable without severe media restrictions, which is anti-democratic, and thus those in congress are the ones who have to make sure their constituents are getting accurate information.
How do you change a group identity that is so intertwined with anti-science rhetoric? Government sources will not be efficient in convincing Evangelicals, instead, Evangelical leaders must step up and advocate for vaccination. Finally, congresspeople have to overcome intense polarization. Spreading misinformation undermines democracy and spreading harmful lies about vaccinations only further hurts our country. Our health and democracy are at stake.
Thank’s for such an interesting post. As an ex-evangelical myself, I found it very interesting. One thing I think is also worth mentioning is that Evangelical group identity often includes a persecution complex rooted in a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible. The dichotomy of “the world” and the “church” being in perpetual odds is rooted in a literal view of scripture. John 15:19, a verse spoken directly by Jesus to the apostles after the last supper, must be interpreted by fundamentalists as applying literally to them as well: “If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.” Anything the world disagrees with evangelicals on is not simply a difference of political, cultural or spiritual opinion: it is often interpreted as the “world” and it hates them. Fighting to stop abortion, to allow prayer in school, to not tax churches, is fighting against the same persecution (stoning, arrest, flogging) described in the Acts of the Apostles. Of course this is ridiculous, and of course not all Evangelicals believe this: but the Christian scriptures allude to a future Kingdom of God. When the new testament was written, Christianity indeed was a persecuted minority religion, which explains why much of the content reflects a culture of the persecuted and the oppressed, preparing for eschatological liberation by living a moral life. Because fundamentalism requires a strict, word-for-word interpretation of scripture, these persecuted minority narratives are internalized literally by America’s enormous evangelical population. Everything in the world must conform to and be explained by this literal biblical narrative. While I agree with you that Evangelical leaders must take a step forward toward things that benefit all people. I fear however, that without providing incentives to change the toxic interpretation of christianity itself, there will always be an us-versus-them discourse that undermines long term effective cultural healing that prioritizes dialogue and reconciliation. Evangelicals aren’t maniacs: they’re doing what they believe the bible teaches. Unfortunately, this means for many (but certainly not all) evangelicals, voting for trump, being anti abortion, anti homosexuality, etc. are sacred and morally just acts. *disclaimer* I am not attempting to say that Evangelical christians ARE the problem, that they’re less intelligent, or are bad people: I am trying my best to respectfully disagree with biblical literalism and what I believe are its toxic consequences.