Throughout the past year of global pandemic, many pastors and faith leaders have appealed to the words of Jesus to argue for social distancing, masking and other precautions against the spread of coronavirus. The appeal to “love your neighbor as yourself” now is employed as a reason for getting vaccinated.
It turns out that four in 10 Americans don’t buy this argument, with white evangelical Protestants being the most resistant.
The group that appears most motivated by the teachings of Jesus in this pandemic moment? Jews, Mormons and adherents to non-Christian religions.
These are among the findings of a large-scale study of American attitudes about religion and COVID-19 vaccination conducted by Public Religion Research Institute and Interfaith Youth Core released April 22.
Love for neighbor?
A slight majority of Americans (53%) told pollsters they agree with the statement “Because getting vaccinated against COVID-19 helps protect everyone, it is a way to live out the religious principle of loving my neighbors.” Another 44% disagreed with the statement.
There is a direct correlation between one’s views on getting vaccinated as a means of loving neighbor and willingness to be vaccinated, although the research doesn’t indicate which is the cause and which is the effect.
Seven in 10 Americans who are vaccine accepters said getting vaccinated is a way to show love for their neighbors. The scientific argument here is for reaching herd immunity, when enough of the population carries immunity to protect the larger population.
Among those who are classified as vaccine hesitant — those who haven’t ruled out being vaccinated but still have many questions or concerns — only 40% believe getting vaccinated is a way to show love for their neighbors. And among those who are vaccine rejecters, a slight 14% concur that vaccination is a way to show love for neighbor.
Majorities of all religious groups except white evangelical Protestants (46%) and Hispanic Protestants (49%) affirm that getting vaccinated is a way to live out the religious principle of loving neighbors. Topping the list of those who agree with this assessment are Jewish Americans (69%), Mormons (66%) and non-Christian religious Americans (64%).
Connection to public health opposition
Throughout the pandemic, white evangelical leaders have been the most vocal opponents of embracing public health measures as a way to follow the teachings of Jesus. Chief among those has been popular evangelical pastor and author John MacArthur, whose Grace Community Church in Los Angeles has sued the county and state to protest limitations on in-person, indoor worship.
There is a direct correlation between one’s views on getting vaccinated as a means of loving neighbor and willingness to be vaccinated.
MacArthur has emphasized the biblical command to “not forsake” gathering together for worship as more important than other human-to-human relational commands.
That idea was clearly expressed in August 2020 by Don Green, a Cincinnati pastor and former managing director of MacArthur’s radio ministry. He wrote a lengthy Facebook post about why churches need to be open for in-person worship. That post was shared on Twitter by Phil Johnson, another of MacArthur’s broadcasting handlers and influencers.
Green declared that love of neighbor “is not the gospel” and “it’s not even the first goal of the law.” He quoted Jesus from Matthew 22, where he said the greatest commandment is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind.” He stopped short of continuing the passage where Jesus says, “And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.”
“Our obligation to God is greater than our obligation to our neighbor,” Green said. “Loving our neighbor is important, but it comes in second place to love and obedience to God. Our obligation to God is greater than our obligation to our neighbor.”
Does God protect the faithful?
Meanwhile, the new PRRI/IFYC poll also explored the question of whether God will protect the faithful from COVID-19.
76% of Americans disagreed with the statement that “God always rewards those who have faith with good health and will protect them from being infected with COVID-19.”
This variation on a prosperity gospel theme resonated with only 21% of Americans in the new poll. Fully three-fourths (76%) of Americans disagreed with the statement that “God always rewards those who have faith with good health and will protect them from being infected with COVID-19.”
Republicans (26%) are slightly more likely than Democrats (20%) and independents (18%) to say God will protect the faithful from COVID.
Hispanic Protestants (35%) and Hispanic Catholics (35%) are most likely to believe God will protect them from being infected with COVID-19. Black Americans (35%) and Hispanic Americans (30%) are more likely than members of other racial groups (19%), white Americans (17%), and multiracial Americans (17%) to say God always rewards those who have faith with good health and will protect them from being infected with COVID-19.
Belief in divine protection against COVID-19 more strongly affects vaccine attitudes among white Americans than Black Americans, however. Among white Americans who are vaccine refusers, 34% believe God will protect them from the virus.
The survey was conducted online March 8-30 with a sample balanced to be representative of the entire United States. It carries a margin of error of 1.5 percentage points.