If you have followed news coverage of debates about COVID-19 vaccines, you know that the leaders of churches and major religious denominations — Black and White — have been walking a tightrope on this issue.
Once this subject became politicized — like everything else in American life — there was almost no way to tackle it without causing more tension in their flocks.
Nevertheless, the vast majority of major religious leaders have been doing everything they can to make it possible for more people to safely return to the pews. These efforts have received quite a bit coverage at the local level.
Take, for example, this recent headline in The Dallas Morning News: “Robert Jeffress hopes to combat vaccine fears with First Baptist Dallas’ COVID-19 vaccination effort.” Here is the overture:
To combat vaccine hesitancy among Christian evangelicals, First Baptist Church in Dallas will have a COVID-19 vaccination clinic. …
Senior pastor Robert Jeffress said he hopes the move will encourage people to get shots so more of his 14,000 congregants can come and worship in person.
“Our church will never be what it needs to be until you’re back. The greater risk is the spiritual danger of staying isolated,” Jeffress said in a recent sermon. “I’m not forcing anybody to get the vaccine. That’s your choice. But what I am saying is if you are not back yet, and would like to come back, one option is to take the vaccine, and therefore you don’t have to worry about what other people do or don’t do here in the church.”
Like I said, this was a totally normal local story on this issue.
However, stop and think about this question: Would this have been a bigger story — attracting coverage from TV networks and elite newsrooms such as The New York Times — if Jeffress had taken a stance against the vaccines?
You know it would have been a national story, in part because of this preacher’s past support for former President Donald Trump.
Everything gets bigger when you put the news inside a political framework. Maybe we can state the issue this way: A White evangelical leader opposing the COVID-19 vaccines would be national news, because that would fit with news stereotypes of White evangelicals. Turn that around: A major White evangelical leader supporting the vaccines is merely a local news story.
There is no question that the COVID-19 crisis has produced tensions and sometimes open warfare inside religious groups, especially questions about mandatory masks and social distancing. However, the leaders of America’s largest religious groups — Catholics and Southern Baptists, for example — have worked hard to promote efforts to return to in-person (as opposed to online) worship, while working within local and state rules for social distancing and masks.
The problem was that rebels who rejected safety measures — often in independent evangelical and Pentecostal congregations — received way more press coverage then the denominational leaders who encouraged their people to play by the rules. In several GetReligion posts (click here and then here for examples) I noted that the coronavirus wars were never as simple as journalists made them. Looking at religious and political responses, there were actually five different stances that needed to be covered:
They are (1) the 99% of religious leaders who cooperated and took worship online, (2) some religious leaders who (think drive-in worship or drive-thru confessions) who tried to create activities that followed [government] social-distancing standards, (3) a few preachers who rebelled, period, (4) lots of government leaders who established logical laws and tried to be consistent with sacred and secular activities and (5) some politicians who seemed to think drive-in religious events were more dangerous than their secular counterparts.
Debates about vaccines were tragically similar.
Like I said, it is certainly true that many White evangelicals have been reluctant to get their vaccine shots. This has raised questions: Why is that? How big was this problem?
Later on in the Dallas Morning News story, readers read the following familiar statements:
According to the Pew Research Center, white evangelicals are among the least-likely demographic groups to get the vaccines. In a March poll, 45% of evangelicals said they would not get the shots.
Those numbers have fueled concern even within evangelical circles. The National Association of Evangelicals, which represents more than 45,000 local churches, is part of a new coalition that will host events, work with media outlets and distribute various public messages to build trust among wary evangelicals.
“The pathway to ending the pandemic runs through the evangelical church,” said Curtis Chang, a former pastor and missionary who founded ChristiansAndTheVaccine.com, the cornerstone of the new initiative. With white evangelicals making up an estimated 20% of the U.S. population, resistance to vaccination by half of them would seriously hamper efforts to achieve herd immunity, Chang contends.
As you would expect, there is another way to frame that issue and, as always, there are Pew numbers involved in the discussion. Here’s the important question: Is the big problem with “White evangelicals” or with “Republican males”?
Consider this information directly from Pew and another polling project:
About 13% of American adults don’t want a COVID-19 vaccine, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Republicans are the most resistant; nearly 3 in 10 say they don’t want one. The share is greater among rural, Republican men, 35% of whom don’t want to get a vaccine. …
Many state and county health departments have made special efforts to reach Black, Hispanic, homebound and unhoused populations that have been hit hard by the pandemic.
Obviously, there are quite a few GOP males who are also White evangelicals. There’s no need to avoid that fact. The vaccine efforts at First Baptist Dallas could be seen as a way to appeal to many local Republicans who would trust a conservative Baptist leader and his church more than they would trust other local institutions.
Why did Jeffress take this stand? First of all, because he wanted it to be as safe as possible for people to return to his pews. But I also appreciated that the Dallas Morning News story included this note:
Jeffress is among a group of high-profile evangelical pastors who are supporting vaccine efforts. Earlier this year on a Fox News appearance, he compared getting the vaccine to his stance against abortion.
“We talk about life inside the womb being a gift from God,” he said. “Well, life outside the womb is a gift from God, too.”
One more point: I found it interesting that this story mentioned that some “large Dallas-area churches, like the Potter’s House in southern Dallas, have served as vaccination sites.” The Potter’s Church is, of course, a massive Black megachurch led by the Pentecostal Bishop T.D. Jakes.
That’s an example of another important religion story during the past year — the struggle to convince many African-Americans to get their COVID-19 shots. That’s a complex issue and there is evidence that many Blacks, churched and unchurched, have had trouble getting easy access to the vaccines.
Was the vaccine drive at Dallas First Baptist a big news story? Yes.
Was the vaccine drive at the Potter’s Church a big story, when the News covered it earlier? Yes.
In both of these cases, I would say that these stories deserved local and even national attention precisely because these were examples of (a) the larger efforts by mainstream religious leaders (yes, including evangelicals) to return to in-person worship in as safe a manner as possible and (b) political and cultural tensions in church pews that made this work more complicated.