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White evangelicals dying of Covid after denouncing vaccines are wasting martyrdom

Most of America's religious groups have no objections to vaccines or mandates. In that context, white evangelicals stand out.
Images: A hand praying over a bible and a vaccine vial.
A poll finds that most religious Americans support vaccines and vaccination mandates and believe religion is being used as an excuse. Most white evangelicals believe religious objections are valid.MSNBC / Getty Images

This year we’ve seen a number of conservative personalities, including the late evangelical leaders Marcus Lamb and Jimmy DeYoung, who succumbed to Covid-19 after minimizing the risks of the disease or making disparaging remarks about the vaccines. What is such opposition if not an arrogant attempt to put God to the test, no less problematic, say, than stepping off a great height and counting on being caught by angels?

A personal decision not to take Covid-19 seriously is bad enough. Even worse, though, is a personnel decision to fire those who do.

A personal decision not to take Covid-19 seriously is bad enough. Even worse, though, is a personnel decision to fire those who do. When evangelical Christian radio host Dave Ramsey fired video editor Brad Amos on July 31, Amos responded with a lawsuit against Ramsey Solutions that claims Ramsey thought taking steps to avoid infection showed a “weakness of spirit.” A spokesperson for the company told McClatchy News that Amos was “fired during a meeting to discuss his poor performance with his leaders, where he insulted his most senior leader. He was not terminated for his religious beliefs or how he wanted to handle COVID.”

Weeks later, the National Religious Broadcasters fired spokesperson Daniel Darling after he said in a USA Today op-ed and on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that getting vaccinated was his way of obeying the commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself. The NRB has stated that on the matter of vaccines, it is “neutral.”

The demands for religious exemptions to Covid-19 vaccination mandates may have Americans convinced that to be religious in America means to be recklessly indifferent to Covid’s dangers. But a December poll from the Public Religion Research Institute finds that at least 60 percent of Jewish Americans, Hispanic Protestants, Hispanic Catholics, white Catholics, Latter-day Saints and “other Christians” believe “there are no valid religious reasons to refuse a vaccine.” The PRRI also finds that at least 50 percent of Black Protestants, other Protestants of color, white mainline Protestants and “other non-Christian religious Americans” share that view.

That leaves white evangelicals by themselves as the only religious group in the country in which fewer than half — in this case, 41 percent — agree that there are no valid religious reasons for such a refusal.

What’s more, according to the PRRI survey, when asked whether too many people are using religion as an excuse to avoid vaccination, “two-thirds or more of Jewish Americans (72%), Latter-day Saints (68%), religiously unaffiliated Americans (67%), and other non-Christian religious Americans (67%) agree, as do about six in ten Hispanic Catholics (63%), other Christians (62%), Black Protestants (62%), white mainline Protestants (59%), white Catholics (59%), and Hispanic Protestants (58%), and Hispanic Protestants (58%).”

The only religious groups that disagreed that religion is being wrongly fashioned into an anti-vaccination excuse were white evangelical Protestants and other Protestants of color.

Even if one stipulates the sincerity of conservative Christians who think Christianity prohibits them from getting vaccinated and the sincerity of those who fear the power of a government that can mandate vaccinations, that doesn’t explain Amos’ getting fired for, as he claims in his lawsuit, requesting to work from home and for masking and keeping his distance in the office. Nor does it explain Darling’s getting fired for characterizing vaccination as a kind of neighborliness. To make sense of those firings we have to consider the theologically flimsy belief that any concern about illness proves a lack of faith, a belief that makes sense only to those who think religious devotion and sickness can’t coexist.

The prosperity gospel that has convinced so many that believing brings wealth has them equally convinced that believing maintains health.

As Kate Bowler, an associate professor at Duke Divinity School, puts it in “Everything Happens For a Reason (And Other Lies I’ve Loved),” the prosperity gospel that has convinced so many Americans that believing brings wealth has them equally convinced that believing maintains health. She writes: “In a spiritual world in which healing is a divine right ... a suffering believer is a puzzle to be solved.” Add to that the argument that Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a Calvin University history professor, makes in “Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation,” that white evangelicals have rejected meekness and neighborliness in favor of a “rugged, aggressive militant white masculinity.” Does Donald Trump Jr. consider himself evangelical? It doesn’t matter. He was giving voice to the heresies Du Mez describes when he said at America Fest on Tuesday, "We've turned the other cheek and I understand sort of the biblical reference, I understand the mentality, but it's gotten us nothing, OK?"

It’s not hard to figure out why the evangelical broadcasters named above chose not to protect themselves with a vaccine or why, according to Amos, Ramsey called him weak. But what a wasted martyrdom. Unlike the original saints, who died horrible deaths at the hands of a hostile empire, they died shaking their fists at a government trying to prevent their horrible deaths.

The PRRI survey finds that we’re at the point where only 1 percent of people who describe themselves as vaccine refusers (and only 11 percent who say they're vaccine hesitant) say they'd be more likely to consider vaccination if a religious leader encouraged them to do so.

I asked Du Mez this year whether there exists an evangelical leader who could persuade believers to take the virus seriously. She said no one leader could do it alone; it would have to be a collective (if not unanimous) effort, lest those believers find another leader whose message better suits them. To that point, in the spring, when Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham and president of the evangelical humanitarian organization Samaritan’s Purse, promoted vaccines as “pro-life,” he was blasted by other evangelicals who called them “devilish.”

Last week, former President Donald Trump was about as forceful as he’s ever been on vaccines, defending their efficacy to skeptical conservatives Bill O’Reilly and Candace Owens. As a de facto leader of white evangelicals, Trump is a strong advocate. It may be hard to remember, but there were evangelical leaders and publications that spoke out against Trump’s 2016 candidacy. Du Mez said that was the year many evangelical pastors realized they had less influence over their flocks than they thought, considerably less than Fox News and Trump. That’s why we should all pray that his promotion of vaccines pays dividends. We need somebody who has enough influence over those disregarding Covid’s seriousness to pull them back from the cliff.