Faith leaders are encouraging vaccinations, framing the decision as a religious obligation: It's working

CHICAGO – Lines of people waited at an Illinois mosque early in August to roll up their sleeves and get their COVID-19 shots – the product of months of work behind the scenes.

Imams at the Mosque Foundation in Bridgeview, Illinois, have been preaching about the importance of getting vaccinated. Newsletters urging vaccines were sent out. The foundation's app informed users on how to get vaccinated.

"We have some people who are hesitant, but overall these efforts have had huge success," said Oussama Jammal, the Mosque Foundation's president and secretary-general of the U.S. Council of Muslim Organizations. "It's making a real difference."

Across the country, faith leaders like Jammal are urging their community members to get vaccinated. Some have even called getting vaccinated a religious obligation grounded in concerns for the greater good. 

While some faith communities are struggling with continued vaccine hesitancy, in many cases, the push by religious leaders is working recent studies show hesitancy rates dropping by 11 to 15 percentage points across all major faith groups. 

Messaging from religious leaders, more than from political or medical representatives, may be the most effective in encouraging vaccinations, according to a South Dakota State University survey.

“Faith leaders are seen as those outside players who can approach somebody from within their community,” said David Wiltse, an associate professor of political science at South Dakota State University who led the survey.

Pope Francis, for example, recently told Catholics that getting vaccinated is "an act of love." In St. Louis, Muslim leaders urged a vaccine, saying it is in accordance with the Quran to keep yourself and others healthy.

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Jammal said vaccinations "should be an unquestionable Islamic mandate."

"If you get sick because of negligence, that is equivalent to a sin because you've put your life in danger and put the lives of others in danger," he said.

In Washington, D.C., Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Sholom - The National Synagogue made a TikTok about his participation in the Moderna vaccine trials and preached about how getting vaccinated is a religious responsibility.

"It is our responsibility to speak out on moral issues of the day, and that’s what this is,” he said.

Christian teachings about protecting the vulnerable should also encourage people to get vaccinated, said Kelly Brown Douglas, dean of Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.

She called vaccinations a moral obligation, drawing on God's commandment to "love thy neighbor."

“Our task as faith leaders is to remind us that we are all one," she said, "and getting vaccinated is the duty we have to all those around us."

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Vaccine hesitancy high among white evangelicals 

Vaccine hesitancy fell between March and June among all major religious groups as many embraced vaccines at the urging of faith leaders, according to a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute.

Those drops in hesitancy are the direct result of robust campaigns by faith leaders, especially of Black churches, said Natalie Jackson, director of research at the institute.

While Black Protestants were initially at the center of national conversations about vaccine hesitancy, they have seen a significant increase in vaccine acceptance, rising from 49% to 66%, according to the survey. Vaccine hesitancy among Black Protestants dropped from 32% to 21%.

For white evangelical Protestants, acceptance of vaccines has increased from 45% to 56%, but they stand out among groups least receptive, with 24% refusing vaccination and 20% who are hesitant, the survey said.

“There was a time that we were only talking about vaccine hesitancy in Black Protestant communities,” said Curtis Chang, co-founder of Christians and the Vaccine and a former evangelical pastor. “Now, it’s really a white evangelical issue.”

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White evangelicals have long harbored a mistrust of federal institutions, said Wiltse, the political science professor. That combined with a wariness of mainstream science – fed by online conspiracy theories and dangerous politicization of the vaccines – has led to a distrust of the COVID-19 vaccines, he added.

“This is a base that has gotten radicalized by outside forces,” Chang said. “I've heard from some pastors that, 'Tucker Carlson gets them for 20 hours a week, and I get them for one.' They feel like they can't compete with the conspiracies and fear and doubt.”

Plus, evangelicalism is a “very individualized religion," said Ryan Burge, assistant professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University. Evangelicals emphasize personal salvation and an individual relationship with God above all else, he said.

“They've been taught to make individualized decisions,” said Burge, who is also a pastor in the American Baptist Church. “Their entire theology and politics are based on this individualistic worldview. So if you teach them that and then say to get the vaccine because it protects other people too, they've never been taught to make decisions like that.”

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Douglas, dean of Episcopal Divinity School, said this individualism differs from Black church communities, which have historically had to rely on their own community members for survival when the government has failed them due to systemic racism.

“When we talk about the Black church community, we are talking about a faith tradition that has always functioned to benefit the community,” Douglas said.

Vaccine refusal is more prevalent from the pews than the pulpit, with 95% of evangelical leaders saying they would be open to getting vaccinated in a January survey from the National Association of Evangelicals.

“Over the last five years or so, the congregations have swung to the right of their pastors, and you can see those politics emerge in vaccine refusal," Burge said. "There’s a disconnect between pastors and congregations, and many pastors are wondering what to do.”

Many evangelical pastors are afraid of bringing up vaccines, worried that doing so would unsettle congregations, said Daniel DeWitt, who directs the Center for Biblical Apologetics and Public Christianity at Cedarville University in Ohio. 

Pastors are "trying to walk a fine line," said DeWitt, who believes vaccinations are a moral responsibility for Christians. 

In Florida, retired pastor Jerry Belloit said neighboring pastors in his rural community have been reluctant to explicitly support vaccinations because they're worried about losing members of their congregations.

Belloit, who coordinates Floral City United Methodist Church's vaccination clinics, said the church has organized four clinics, passed out vaccine information packets and preached about the importance of vaccination to overcome "misinformation and fear."

It's paid off. The church has almost a 95% vaccination rate, Belloit said. Citrus County, where the church is located, has a 45.7% vaccination rate, compared to 50.9% nationwide, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

Southern states have seen some of the country's lowest vaccination rates – and highest COVID-19 case rates – in the country as the delta variant rips through unvaccinated communities.

In Texas, Robert Jeffress, televangelist and senior pastor of the 14,000-member First Baptist Church in Dallas, said getting vaccinated is "a spiritual as well as a scientific issue." 

He said he often uses an anti-abortion framing to encourage vaccines. 

"We are strong advocates for the sanctity of life, and that refers to not just life inside the womb but life outside the womb as well," he said, adding vaccines were "a gift from God."

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How to turn the tide against vaccine hesitancy

Advocates say subtle approaches and one-on-one conversations may be more effective for those who are religious and vaccine hesitant.

“Maybe in these white evangelical communities, this isn't the work that happens from the pulpit but in individual conversation, from person to person,” Douglas said. “It's just one person at a time, one family at a time.”

Chang founded the advocacy organization Christians and the Vaccine to “persuade Christians, especially evangelical Christians, to think about the vaccine from a biblical perspective of being faithful to Jesus.”

The organization created videos and other resources to help people, including pastors, answer questions and respond to concerns Christians may have about vaccines. The videos also include interviews from “trusted leaders from different strands of American evangelicalism.”

A recent study used one of those videos to examine the issue. Researchers at Columbia University and the Stanford Polarization and Social Change Lab found that unvaccinated Christians expressed more trust and greater intentions to get vaccinated after receiving vaccine endorsements from a medical expert who shared their religious identity.

"Our study suggests that the Christians and the Vaccine video we tested successfully persuaded Christians to get vaccinated, in part because it helped them see medical experts as sharing their religious values," James Chu, a Columbia University sociologist, said in a statement to USA TODAY. "Purely secular outreach efforts cannot do this."

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For faith communities with more decentralized structures, like evangelical Christians, there needs to be more efforts to convene faith leaders and speak with a united voice, Chang said.

But all the pressure can’t be on pastors to fight vaccine hesitancy, he said.

“You can't expect a pastor to carry all the weight," he said. "You also can't expect any individual person to do that. We need to build networks of trusted people around each person.”

Contact News Now Reporter Christine Fernando at cfernando@usatoday.com or follow her on Twitter at @christinetfern.

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