New podcast: Familiar splits among white 'evangelicals,' only now they're about vaccines

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It’s really a matter of simple math and logic.

Let’s start with this question, stripped of the political and journalism questions attached to it: Which of the following numbers is larger and, thus, more important — 45 or 55?

If you said “45,” then you’re ready to write headlines and edit controversial stories for The New York Times.

Before we move on, let’s ask another question that was at the heart of this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in).


I’ll frame this in as neutral a manner as possible: If members of the Democratic Party were divided 55% “yes” to 45% “no” on a major decision, would you see this (a) as a sign that Democrats were united in opposition to the question at hand or (b) that Democrats were starkly divided on the question, with a majority taking a positive stance? I should mention that the 55% “yes” vote includes virtually all of leaders of major institutions within the world of Democratic Party life.

With that in mind, let’s contemplate the story under the following double-decker headline from the Times:

White Evangelical Resistance Is Obstacle in Vaccination Effort

Millions of white evangelical adults in the U.S. do not intend to get vaccinated against Covid-19. Tenets of faith and mistrust of science play a role; so does politics.

This brings us to the crucial summary material in this story:

The opposition is rooted in a mix of religious faith and a longstanding wariness of mainstream science, and it is fueled by broader cultural distrust of institutions and gravitation to online conspiracy theories. The sheer size of the community poses a major problem for the country’s ability to recover from a pandemic that has resulted in the deaths of half a million Americans. And evangelical ideas and instincts have a way of spreading, even internationally.

There are about 41 million white evangelical adults in the U.S. About 45 percent said in late February that they would not get vaccinated against Covid-19, making them among the least likely demographic groups to do so, according to the Pew Research Center

“If we can’t get a significant number of white evangelicals to come around on this, the pandemic is going to last much longer than it needs to,” said Jamie Aten, founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College, an evangelical institution in Illinois.

Now, I think we can all agree that 45% of white evangelicals in the United States represents a “significant number” of people. However, I would argue that 55% of white evangelicals is also a “significant number” of people and, well, that is also a larger number of people.

The Times story also shows that major leaders among white evangelicals have spoken out in favor of the vaccines — ministers such as Franklin Graham, Robert Jeffress of FIrst Baptist Church of Dallas and J.D. Greear, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention. That list could include dozens of other national-level evangelical leaders.

But, but, but …

There are these other evangelicals that you can find with Google searches that have some colorful, to say the least, views about the evil origins of the vaccines. They have websites and podcasts and they say interesting things and represent symbolic groups in the Donald Trump era. Consider this passage as rather typical:

Dr. Simone Gold, a prominent Covid-19 skeptic who was charged with violent entry and disorderly conduct in the Jan. 6 Capitol siege, told an evangelical congregation in Florida that they were in danger of being “coerced into taking an experimental biological agent.”

The evangelical radio host Eric Metaxas wrote “Don’t get the vaccine” in a tweet on March 28 that has since been deleted. “Pass it on,” he wrote.

Some evangelicals across ethnicity believe that any Covid restrictions — including mask mandates and restrictions on in-person church worship — constitute oppression.

Let me stress, once again, that it is absolutely true that a significant number of white evangelicals appear to be opposed to use of COVID-19 vaccines.

It is clear, however, that white evangelicals are starkly DIVIDED on this issue, as opposed to being a giant monolith standing in opposition to the vaccines. There is also evidence of divisions between the views of many evangelicals (but not all) and their leaders. That’s an important story, too.

This Times story — although it does not appear that editors realized this — provides quite a bit of evidence of a growing divide (Julia Duin has been all over this trend here at GetReligion) between mainstream evangelicals and the world of charismatic and Pentecostal “prophets” in some independent congregations, ministries and media outlets. This divide has doctrinal (think pronouncements on the nature of healing) and political implications (even though Donald Trump has backed the vaccines).

That divide has been a big story for several years. It is (sorry to repeat this) evidence of a major divide in the evangelical world (broadly defined) and it has international implications, as well. This divide can also be seen in some Black churches, as well. There have been quite a few valid stories noting the fears that some, repeat “some,” Black evangelical and Pentecostal believers have about the vaccines.

So is it hard to cover this story without turning white evangelicals — once again — into a great mass of stupid straw people?

Consider this headline at NPR: “’Love Your Neighbor’ And Get The Shot: White Evangelical Leaders Push COVID Vaccines.” The key word in that headline is “leaders.” This summary notes some of the fine details:

Theologically fraught conspiracy theories have been swirling online, particularly in some evangelical circles. In a recent video posted online, U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., similarly suggested — without evidence — a connection between the Mark of the Beast and vaccines.

Nationally, white evangelicals report a high degree of vaccine hesitancy in multiple surveys. One recent study released by the Ad Council found that just over half of white evangelicals said they were likely to get vaccinated, compared with 64% of evangelicals of color. Both groups were well below the rate for nonevangelicals, 77%. …

Several national evangelical leaders also are speaking out in support of vaccination, including the Rev. Franklin Graham, son of the late Rev. Billy Graham. Graham’s charity, Samaritan’s Purse, set up several field hospitalsto treat COVID-19 patients around the world.

“We have seen firsthand — at least I have — what coronavirus can do to a person,” Graham told NPR. “It’s frightening, and you don’t want it.”

It also helps to look at other poll numbers, when trying to get a handle on this trend.

Consider the top of the Associated Press story that was posted with this headline: “Vaccine skepticism runs deep among white evangelicals in US.

I would say that “runs deep” is appropriate. It would be better to simply say white evangelicals are “divided” on this issue. Thus, AP notes:

The president of the Southern Baptist Convention, America’s largest evangelical denomination, posted a photo on Facebook last week of him getting the COVID-19 vaccine. It drew more than 1,100 comments — many of them voicing admiration for the Rev. J.D. Greear, and many others assailing him.

Some of the critics wondered if worshippers would now need “vaccine passports” to enter The Summit Church in Durham, North Carolina, where Greear is pastor. Others depicted the vaccines as satanic or unsafe, or suggested Greear was complicit in government propaganda.

The divided reaction highlighted a phenomenon that has become increasingly apparent in recent polls and surveys: Vaccine skepticism is more widespread among white evangelicals than almost any other major bloc of Americans.

In a March poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, 40% of white evangelical Protestants said they likely won’t get vaccinated, compared with 25% of all Americans, 28% of white mainline Protestants and 27% of nonwhite Protestants.

Now that wasn’t hard, was it?

But I will ask the questions that many GetReligion readers asked: Why were Times editors so determined to frame this story in such a strange, simplistic manner?

Enjoy the podcast and, please, share it with others.

FIRST IMAGE: Screenshot from YouTube linked at the JJMcCartney 24/7 website.

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